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Recording

Lampe: The Dragon of Wantley

Mary Bevan, Catherine Carby, Mark Wilde, John Savournin, The Brook Street Band, John Andrews
107:56 (2 CDs in a single jewel case)
resonus RES10304

The Dragon of Wantley by the German-born John Frederick Lampe and his regular librettist Henry Carey was one of the most successful English stage works of the 18th century. A burlesque opera offered to Drury Lane, it was refused and waited a further two years until its premiere at the Little Theatre in 1737. The rejection transpired to be a bloomer comparable with Decca’s rejection of the Beatles; The Dragon was the sensation of the season, later being taken over by John Rich at Covent Garden, where in its first season it received no fewer than 59 performances, more than had been achieved by The Beggar’s Opera nine years earlier. The libretto was reprinted endlessly, the opera taken up by other companies and holding the stage until 1782.

The reason for The Dragon’s success is not hard to understand. A full-scale three-act opera, it broadly follows the design of opera seria. Unlike most English stage works, there is no dialogue, only recitative. The secret of the work’s appeal to English audiences is that it is a clever and merciless parody of Italian oratorio and opera, debate over the latter remaining a contentious issue in England throughout the century. While Lampe, who earlier had himself composed three serious operas, composed music that is skilful, attractive and often touching, Carey’s libretto persistently undermines any element of seriousness by being absurd, cleverly creating a near-constant conflict between words and music. There’s a wonderful example at the start of act 2, where the heroine Margery sings a long aria in the voguish sentimental style regretting she has asked her lover, the foppish Moore of Moore Hall, to kill the dragon that has been terrorising the neighbourhood. Set in a nocturnal garden it opens with an exquisite moon-kissed orchestral introduction. But any magic is immediately dissipated by the opening words, ‘Sure my Stays will burst with sobbing, And my Heart quite crack with throbbing’. So we have the full parody treatment: an aria di furia complete with Handelian chromaticism for Margery’s rival Mauxalinda; a furious duet between the rival women that early audiences will have associated with the warring between Handel’s singers Faustina and Bordoni; a mock Battle Sinfonia replete with trumpets, horns and timpani – Moore kills the dragon with a kick up the backside – and a grand oratorio final chorus, in which repeated  ‘Huzzas’ stand in for the customary ‘Hallelujahs’.   

While far from perfect, this first performance of the complete opera is enjoyable, not least for playing the piece relatively straight and without guying it. Therein, however, is also a problem, for although John Andrews’s direction is idiomatically assured and the playing of The Brook Street Band neat and tidy, it is possible to imagine the work benefitting from a more spirited, lively performance. This impression is underlined by tempos that tend to the pedestrian and rhythms that are not infrequently four-square and lacking ‘lift’. It is also a pity that the recording emphasises the ecclesiastical acoustic of St-Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, a less appropriate sound for a bawdy opera being hard to imagine. This affects the singers, too, in particular Mary Bevan’s Margery, whose largely excellent performance is spoiled by the voice spreading in the upper range. None of the other singers have much in the way of early music credentials and it shows in the level of continuous vibrato on display, particularly in the case of the Mauxalinda. Ornamentation is applied haphazardly and with variable success, that of Bevan being superior to her colleagues. Bass John Savournin is fine in the brief role of Gubbins and an even briefer appearance as the Dragon who devours, ‘Houses and Churches, to him Geese and Turkies’, but tenor Mark Wilde’s Moore has intonation problems in passage work, though he brings more character to the recitative than is in evidence elsewhere.  

As I suggested earlier, Lampe’s fine work is enjoyably enough presented, though it would be good to hear it given a more vocally stylish performance. More careful proofreading of Andrews’s notes might have avoided reference to Handel’s Giustnino (for which read Giustino).

Brian Robins 

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Recording

Un Bestiaire Fabuleux

Ensemble Faenza, Marco Horvat
59:35
Editions Hortus 212

This ensemble has researched far and wide in French sources c1650-1750 for this lively anthology of songs and instrumental music exploring the animal kingdom, in which a piece from Couperin’s 22nd ordre seems almost an interloper in the often ‘folky’ soundworld. The approach to performance practice in general might be better described as ‘creative’ rather than HIP but there is plenty of discipline in the playing and singing. The balance of lighter and more serious items is good and they are all neatly characterised.

The booklet includes all sung texts but is in French only.

David Hansell

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Recording

Paris 1847

La musique d’Eugène Jancourt
Mathieu Lussier bassoon, Camille Paquette-Roy cello, Sylvain Bergeron guitar, Valérie Milot harp
97:00 [NB this includes two sonatas that can be downloaded from ATMA’s website]
Atma Classique ACD2 2834

I have to say that if I were to choose an ensemble to perform representative music from 1847 Paris then a combination of bassoon, cello, guitar and harp would be some way down the list of possibilities. But one has to at least give a hearing to a player described as ‘a harpist with the soul of a rebel’.

And what a delight! Our rebellious harpist is not the star but she is a more or less constant presence in music composed and/or arranged by Eugène Jancourt, noted bassoonist and pedagogue, who published his comprehensive Méthode in 1847. Mathieu Lussier here takes responsibility for bringing his predecessor’s work to our notice in a quite brilliant recital of music which cannot be described as profound but which is certainly much more than merely instructional for aspiring players. There are affecting slow movements and jolly rondos as well as arrangements of Donizetti, Bellini and Schubert, all for bassoon with an accompaniment for either cello or a second bassoon (here always a cello). To these, the ensemble adds harp (or, for one piece, guitar) as a sort of mid-19th-century continuo. Questionable in HIP terms, but effective.

The booklet essay (in French and English) includes extensive quotes from Jancourt and the graphic designer has managed to combine the inevitably small font with legibility. But to end with the music. If outstanding – actually, remarkable – performances of charming if unknown repertoire appeal to you in any way, go for this. The music can all be found on IMSLP.

David Hansell

Categories
Recording

Dieupart: Suites de Clavecin

Marie van Rhijn (+Tami Troman violin, Héloïse Gaillard recorder/oboe, Myriam Rignol gamba, Pierre Rinderknecht theorbo)
64:58
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS060

The front of this CD package will lead you to expect a straightforward performance of these relatively well-known suites in their solo harpsichord guise. However, this is not what happens. These suites were originally published in two versions, for solo and for treble instrument and continuo. In addition, there is a 1702/3 notice for a London performance of ‘Mr Dieuparts Book of Lessons for the Harpsichord, made in Consorts’, and all of this leads our current performers to arrange the music for combinations of harpsichord, violin, oboe, various recorders, viol and theorbo. In addition, some movements are interpolated from other suites. In short, these are arrangements, or – in the current jargon – ‘re-imaginings’.

I don’t mind this too much when a suite retains a clear identity with a consistent scoring throughout but here not even movements enjoy this luxury, with changes of sonority being imposed at double bars or even more frequently. So, despite the commitment of the players, this is not for me and I do not think it can reasonably be described as HIP.

The booklet (in French, English and German) is at least honest about what we hear.

David Hansell

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Recording

Oh, ma belle brunette

Reinoud van Mechelen, A Nocte Temporis
71:09
Alpha Classics Alpha 833

I thoroughly recommend this anthology of gentle gorgeousness from 17th/18th century France. Reinoud van Mechelen is the perfect singer for these lovely songs from the art/folk borderland and he is most beautifully supported by his team of flute, gamba, theorbo and harpsichord, though not all at once.

The overall mood is one of restraint and control with an emphasis on beauty of sound, though there’s no hint of self-indulgence. The instrumental items complement the songs very well, inviting us into their world rather than demanding attention.

The booklet (in French and English) includes the sung texts and translations. This disc will be my late evening companion for some time.

David Hansell

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Recording

Fanfaronade

Meisterwerke der französischen Gambenmusik
[Masterpieces of French music for gamba]
Ensemble Art d’Echo, Juliane Laake
69:03
Querstand VKJK2110

To variety of presentation of CDs there is no end, it seems. Here the booklet (in German and English) is glued into the cardboard casing and the programme contents appear only on the back of the case. This isn’t a bad idea, actually, once you work out the best way of handling it for your current purpose.

Juliane Laake and her ensemble are skilled interpreters of this wonderful repertoire and the programme is more varied than it may at first sight seem. Some works are for gamba and continuo (the fewer instruments the better, to my ear); there is a luscious concert à deux violes ésgales by Sainte-Colombe; and a suite for treble viol and continuo by Louis Heudelinne, who published the first-ever collection of solos for this instrument. In style, this is perhaps the music Corelli would have written had he been French and played the viol. I found it more than merely interesting historically, though it is certainly that.

The recital ends with the Marais Folies. If you know anyone who wonders what a viol can do, just play them this!

David Hansell

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Recording

Rameau: Nouvelle Symphonie

Florian Sempey baritone, Les musiciens du Louvre, Marc Minkowski
64:58
Château de Versailles Spectacles CVS062

‘Nouvelle’ in the sense that this is a new compilation (and newly recorded – not extracts from the back catalogue) of extracts from Rameau’s dramatic works. And it has been done in an imaginative way, not simply lumping together all the dances from one opera and calling them a suite. We begin and end in Castor et Pollux, there are five items from Les Indes Galantes and we briefly visit another six works, including the less well-known Acante et Céphise (its firework display – literally – of an overture and two other items). The orchestra is of a generous size (three double basses) and plays with brilliance and enthusiasm, and, rather to this writer’s relief, we are spared speculative percussion contributions.

A striking feature of the programme is the inclusion of a few vocal items sung by baritone Florian Sempey with a blend of sweetness and nobility.

Finally, the booklet (in French, English and German) is informative, though I do prefer it when the essays are grouped by language rather than title.

David Hansell

Categories
Recording

Leclair Concerti per violino

Leila Schayegh, La Cetra Barockorchester Basel
62:13
Glossa GCD 924206

In her elegant essay, the soloist suggests that Leclair’s music has the power ‘to thrill and amaze’.

Well, that is certainly true of this third and final volume in her ensemble’s recordings of his complete violin concertos. The low(ish) pitch of A=408 Hz gives a warmth to the sonority while the ripieno group is large enough to sound like an orchestra but not so large that the soloist has either to force her sound or resort to electronic trickery to be suitably prominent in the overall soundscape.

The music combines demanding virtuosity with an almost detached melodic grace and is often coloured with moments of deft counterpoint and rich harmonies. In short, it’s really classy. If you want to sample before purchase, I’d suggest Op10/4, though none of the 12 tracks will disappoint.

And it’s a pleasure to be able to note a booklet that combines strong content with good design. It had to be possible.

David Hansell

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Recording

Les Noces Royales de Louis XIV

Le Poème Harmonique, directed by Vincent Dumestre 
65:18
Spectacles du Château de Versailles CVS066166

Louis XIV’s wedding was part church service, part a tour of France and part peace treaty (between France and Spain). There was music of all kinds every step of the way but, sadly, details are hard to come by. Thus, this so-attractive title and concept/programme are almost entirely speculative but nonetheless constitute an attractive and well-performed anthology of the kind of music heard in French royal circles c1660.

The two major works are both sacred. Lully’s Jubilate Deo is a magnificent setting of a text compiled from several psalms and can be definitely associated with the royal wedding. Its splendour of both material and construction is the more striking when one recalls that it is the composer’s earliest surviving sacred work. Sources record that the nuptial mass itself featured music by Italian composers. Rather perversely these are evoked by a Cavalli Magnificat from his 1656 publication. Fine though this is, could we not have had at least a taste of the elaborate mass that opens that volume?

I suggested above that the performance standard of this release is high. This is true, but, as always with this director, there are questions to be asked about the performance practice of almost every item, chiefly concerning instrumentation and ornamentation which strike me as being rather ‘help yourself’.

David Hansell

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Recording

J. S. Bach Die Passionen

Johannes-Passion BWV 245, Fassung 1749 Gaechinger Cantorey, directed by Hans-Christoph Rademann, August 2019 (CD 1 & 2)
Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 Kammerchor & Barockorchester Stuttgart, directed by Frieder Bernius, March 2015 (CD 3, 4 & 5)
Markus-Passion BWV 247 amarcord, Kölner Akademie, directed by Michael Alexander Willens, March 2009 (CD 6)
Carus CV 83.046

This boxed set from Carus of all three surviving Bach Passions offers a chance not only to hear three very different styles of performance as they were recorded by different groups in 2009, 2015 and 2019 but allows us to sample the work of the scholarly Diethard Hellmann and Andreas Glöckner in the reconstruction of the Markus-Passion, which is presented with the actor Dominique Horowitz speaking the text of Mark’s gospel for Bach’s evangelista and turba parts that are lost.

There is a degree of ‘house style’ about the performances, and both the Johannes-Passion and the Matthäus-Passion use conventional German choirs with independent soloists singing the narration and arias rather than following what we know to have been Bach’s practice in basing the singers (however many there were) around the concertisten, adding additional ripienists as available and desirable. Not so with the Markus-Passion, where the singing is performed by the ensemble amarcord – 2 sopranos, 2 altos, 2 tenors a baritone and 2 basses, a group established by former members of Leipzig’s Thomanerchor in 1992, which fulfils the sense of cohesion between the singing style of the arias and ensemble numbers – mostly chorales with just two choruses. The instrumental ensemble of the Kölner Akademie has 2 flauti (although I am sure they are traversi), 2 oboes and one fagotto, 2 gambas and a lute, 3 violins and a single viola, ‘cello and violone with an organ. So this performance, recorded live in the Frauenkirche Dresden in March 2009, sounds in many ways the most up-to-date with a clear bright sound, well-balanced in style and dynamic between the singers and players. I myself am glad to have heard an honest version of this work, so well reconstructed by Glöckner, without the borrowed or newly-composed material that appears in other editions.

For the John recording, though it is more recent (2019), we revert to the old German style of performance, with the (excellent) chamber choir and band of the Gaechinger Cantorey (25 singers with a string band of 5.4.3.2.1 and 6 woodwind, so pretty equally balanced) and five independent soloists. The evangelist is the excellent and mellifluous Patrick Grahl, who also sings the arias; Peter Harvey sings the words of Christ with Matthias Winckler singing the part of Pilate and the bass arias, so we miss hearing the Vox Christi singing Mein teurer Heiland in its sprightly D major just after the death on the cross – a key part of Bach’s understanding of Johannine theology. While Benno Schach is a good alto, I myself would not have considered Elizabeth Watts a good match in either vocal quality or style for this music in this company. Despite splendid singing from Patrick Grahl and the basses, I do not find the overall style sufficiently clear to raise it above other excellent performances.

At the head of Frieder Bernius’ 2015 Matthew Passion, there is an interesting note disclosing that he found the dynamic contrasts available to him when using only single voices in the 1980s too slight. In the mid-1990s he decided to take Bach’s famous 1730 Entwurff (which is arguing for adequate resources to enable music to be performed properly in the Leipzig churches on Sundays, allowing for illness and other hazards) at its face value, claiming it as a blueprint for what Bach thought desirable for any performance. So while aiming for clarity and a good balance between vocal and instrumental sound, this recording has, like Rademann’s John, returned to larger numbers. He uses 5.4.4.3 singers with 4.3.2.1.1 strings in Chorus I, and 4.4.3.4 with similar strings in Chorus II, drawing all the bit parts from the two choruses while leaving the evangelist part and all the arias from whichever chorus they are scored to a fine quartet of Hannah Morrison, Sophie Harmsen, Tilman Lichdi and Peter Harvey. Christian Immler sings just the Vox Christi. There is a fagotto with Chorus II, but not with I. The desire to match the vocal tone to that of the period instrument bands is entirely right, but not always convincing – such large numbers may give Bernius the dynamic range he likes, and it may make an exciting performance, but it does not necessarily make a good recording. Contrast this sound with that of the Matthew Passion by Pygmalion with Raphaël Pichon, reviewed in April.

Would I recommend this Carus boxed set? In many ways, it is a fine example of the current state of the performance tradition in Germany, and it is invaluable for the Markus-Passion in its latest edition. The scholarship behind all the editions is up to date and trustable, and the larger groups in the John and Matthew Passions are excellent of their kind. I am glad to have heard them and there is much to admire, but they do not belong on my must-have list.

David Stancliffe